1) SARAH HOW IS COMPOSING MUSIC FOR GAMES DIFFERENT THAN COMPOSING FOR FILM? YOU ARE CERTAINLY QUITE COMFORTABLE DOING BOTH!
Whether it’s a film, a show, or a game, you’re telling a narrative with music in a way that best serves the project and enhances the experience. Watching a linear story is a different experience than taking part in an interactive virtual story, so the music needs are slightly different. With film, you have a lot more control over how the narrative is told. There is more room for subtlety and nuance, weaving character themes in and out and deciding when to bring them back for dramatic effect.
That stuff is a bit harder in games since you can’t control what the player does, and you have less control over where the music ends up. The focus is more on the overall atmosphere and varying levels of energy – making those different states as evocative and engaging as possible. You’re rarely scoring to picture so you don’t have new inspiring visuals to guide your writing all the time. You have to use your imagination a lot and keep the emotional big picture themes fresh in your mind. With games, you have to get used to your music being stripped down and reassembled into many other variations. The editors have to create enough material out of your original music to cover the hours and hours of gameplay. I think working in each medium hones skills that you can then bring to the other in a useful way.
2) WHAT WERE SOME VALUABLE LESSONS YOU PICKED UP WHILE CUTTING YOUR TEETH WITH BRIAN TYLER? DOES PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE TRUMP COLLEGE EDUCATION?
I do think practical experience is more valuable than a college music education, but a college education can put you in a better position to land apprenticeships. If you have the means to go to school, it certainly can’t hurt, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who has to pay for it themselves resulting in massive debt. You could spend a small fraction of that money getting some good gear, moving to LA and interning with someone 4 years sooner.
Doing additional music for a successful composer is a great way to learn because you’re forced to improve your production and writing skills at exponential rates while learning first-hand what to expect working on high-pressure projects with game studios, film studios, TV networks etc. That’s something you won’t learn in school.
I remember when I first met Brian, I saw his studio filled with countless instruments, some of which he had no formal training for, but would use anyway if it made a cool sound. That really resonated with me and inspired me to use my own instrumental skills a lot more. In an oversaturated market of sample libraries and midi mockups, having unique live elements in your music can really elevate your work, especially when you’re starting out.
Working with Brian was also like a crash course in action percussion. He’s a drummer so his sound is super rhythmic with a lot of live drums and percussion elements. I remember handing stuff in early on and he’d be like “why is there no cymbal impact on this downbeat but there is over here?” so I was learning to pay more attention to detail from a drummer’s perspective and as a string player, that was valuable to me.
3) CALL OF DUTY IS A WILDLY POPULAR GAME TITLE AND YOU RECENTLY SCORED THE LATEST EDITION. DO YOU FEEL ANY PRESSURE WHEN YOU ARE INVOLVED IN A HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE SUCH AS C.O.D? HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE SCORE?
Yeah of course there’s some pressure. Taking on a franchise with such devoted and opinionated fans can be overwhelming, but you have to accept that you can’t make everyone happy. There’s a quote I heard recently that said, “Artistic death is creativity by consensus.” I just love that and think it’s rather appropriate here. If you get too caught up in all the different expectations, opinions on past titles, and what you think people want, you’ll end up pleasing no one. Also, having worked on multiple Assassin’s Creeds, I’ve kind of gotten used to the “franchise pressure” feeling.
The goal for the Infinite Warfare score was to create a sound that captured the emotional burdens of leadership and war while conveying the isolation and loneliness in space. While the game is set in space, the sci-fi setting came secondary to the war themes. We went for a more intimate sound with a 19-piece string orchestra, 10 low brass and a few analog synths. The low strings were close mic’d up front and the violins were split up all the way in the back corners for ambient fx. I wanted to blur the lines between synth and orchestra. The synths are like another section in the orchestra and the dynamic is constantly shifting.
4) YOU ARE DOING VERY WELL IN A MALE DOMINATED INDUSTRY. ARE THERE ANY WORDS OF WISDOM YOU CAN SHARE WITH ASPIRING FEMALE COMPOSERS?
It’s incredibly hard to break into the industry regardless of gender and I’m certainly thankful to everyone who’s given me a chance over the years. There are way more composers out there than jobs and it’s painfully competitive for everyone. Men have to stand out amongst an endless sea of other men while women have to overcome preconceived notions about their abilities and deal with inappropriate behavior at times. Regardless of gender, you have to believe in yourself before anyone else can.
I’ve never liked having to be labeled as a “female composer” when gender has always seemed irrelevant to writing music. We never say “wow that male composer can surprisingly write beautiful sensitive feminine music.” All I can say to other women out there in any male-dominated field is to not ever let anyone make you feel like you aren’t capable of doing something. You can choose to focus on the negative and feel like you have less opportunity, or see it as a chance to prove them wrong. There will be times you’ll have to prove yourself a little more in the beginning. If this makes you angry, put that energy into the music. Put everything into your work, believe in yourself, and someone along the way will give you a chance. All it takes is one chance, so be ready!
5) WHAT DO MAJOR GAME DEVELOPERS LOOK FOR IN A COMPOSER? ARE HIRING DECISIONS BASED PURELY ON TALENT?
They are usually looking for a sound that can brand their project in a fresh way. Rarely are they looking for a new Hans Zimmer or a total chameleon. They are of course looking for talent and someone who is creatively on the same page, but personality matters a lot too. It’s important to be able to convey your ideas in a way that gets people excited. They are going to be working with you for potentially an entire year or more and they want someone who is passionate and has a good attitude.
I do think that the game industry puts more emphasis on the music itself when hiring compared to any other industry. More than once now, I’ve experienced game studios employing a blind listen method when initially evaluating demos to avoid any preconceived notions about the person attached to the music. I wish this happened all the time and it goes to show how creatively invested they are in their projects. I have never once heard of this kind of thing happening with big film studios or TV networks. Credits and reputation of course matter, but I’ve found the game industry more willing to take chances.